It is grace.
In other words, this ballet celebrates inner beauty. Purity of spirit, composure, humility — these qualities were all radiantly evident in Heather Ogden’s Aurora. They were revealed in her strong, clear line and classical form, in her confident balances and in the way she melted into the ensemble at the appropriate moments, becoming part of a community of friends, family, cavaliers, suitors and assorted fairies that, as a mini-society, plays a starring role.
I have seen many “Sleeping Beauties,” but never a finer one than this moving and beautiful production.
Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev created this version in 1966 for Italy’s La Scala, and in 1972 he staged it for the National Ballet. It was a turning point for what had been, until then, a relatively quiet company. The Toronto-based troupe began touring extensively, to worldwide acclaim.
Nureyev’s aim was to set a simple, unembellished performance style against a grandiose world, conveyed in the lavish decor. It was a costly idea: According to Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 biography of Nureyev, the chairman of the National Ballet board had to mortgage his house to pay for the production. But the result was worth it.
Designed by Nicholas Georgiadis, the sets and costumes in dusty autumnal colors include miles of fringe and drapery, elaborate wigs and feathers atop nearly every head and jewels, brocade and tiered tulle everywhere else.
In that setting, the simplicity of the choreography is like cool water. It is challenging technique-wise, but instead of showmanship the dancers display calm control and unhurried musicality, even in the most devilish passages. Emma Hawes, in the Principal Fairy variation of the prologue, was in full command of time and gravity as she tossed her leg high, over and over, in a series of slow, sustained Italian fouetté turns with no exertion, only floating buoyancy.
Later, when Ogden’s teenage Aurora pricks her hand with a needle and swoons, the party guests fan out behind her and swoon, too, and the whole cast sways in unison, like one breathing organism. It feels automatic; they are instantly drawn to her, and you can imagine that the wounded princess is comforted by their sympathy. Throughout the ballet, there’s that fluid sweep of the ensemble — unusual and metaphorical.
In most productions, the crowd gets out of the way. Here, Nureyev conjured a meaningful image of community. These are the people who rely on Aurora to lead, and from whom she draws the values she’ll need.
This is a company of strength at every level. Harrison James, as Prince Florimund, mirrored Ogden’s qualities of effortless power and appealing modesty. Rebekah Rimsay was a hugely charismatic Carabosse, the wicked fairy, dominating the stage with ravenous energy and fierce eyes. Tanya Howard’s Lilac Fairy embodied the supernatural and appeared to float rather than walk. But for all its fairy-tale aspects, this “Sleeping Beauty” offers reminders of real-world virtues — warmth toward others, keeping calm, drawing together in love — just when we need them.
The National Ballet of Canada performs “The Sleeping Beauty,” with cast changes, through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. $29-$149. kennedy-center.org.